Keon Ellis has been an exceptionally adequate spot starter in the previous two games in place of the injured De’Aaron Fox, whose timetable for return is still unknown.
In his first NBA start on Wednesday against Portland, Ellis provided a difference-making defensive presence with ample levels of energy and activity. He added 4 points and 4 rebounds in 21 minutes.
On Friday night against Oklahoma City, the second-year player continued on the defensive end, guarding Shai Gilgeous-Alexander admirably and making him work, as Mike Brown put it. He finished with 3 blocked shots in a game where he showcased both his instincts and his skilled use of hands while contributing 8 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists. Most notable of all was the fact he played over 30 minutes and was part of the closing unit.
It’s been a mere two games, but in spite of the small sample size, Ellis has displayed his diverse skill set in impressive fashion.
Defensively—the side of the ball he thrives on and the one the Kings need the most help in—Ellis can guard perimeter players well. He has good athleticism and movement, has tremendous hands, understands fundamentals, and possesses a nose for the ball.
One of the things he can do so well is swat the ball when forced to recover on a driver; in one of those instances, his instincts and precision were on full display when forced to defend the bigger Jerami Grant.
In fact, he did that very thing again on Friday. He closed out slightly hard on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, allowing the OKC star to drive to the rim, but Ellis maintained his resolve knowing there was help inside, recovered to stay on SGA, and struck the ball loose.
Twice he showed how great of a defender he is in the open floor, coming up with 2 of his blocks in transition. In the second quarter, Ellis moved down the floor with his eyes on the ball, went straight up against Lu Dort, and blocked the shot attempt. Midway through the third, Ellis backpedaled and kept Gilgeous-Alexander in front of him to contest and send his shot away; had he not ended up with the block, the fact he got in front of the ball handler would have provided an opportunity for a block for Domantas Sabonis, who came flying in to help.
Adding to that, he persisted on the boards, widening the scope of his impact and contributing to an area the Kings have been dominating in the last few games. Even on the offensive end, he sneakily rose up to throw down an emphatic put back dunk, highlighting his springiness.
Furthermore, he had a louder night on offense this time around. He hit just 1 of 7 three-point attempts, but he ran the offense with comfort. As the “point guard,” he did have an impressive kick out from the paint that hooked Keegan Murray up with his first three-pointer of the night.
His outside shooting needs to come along as he’s shot just 1 of 9 in these two starts. And it’s worth noting that Ellis hesitated on a three-pointer from the top, and drove despite the shot clock winding away quickly in the fourth quarter; he forced Huerter to jack up a tough one, but luckily Keegan Murray wound up with the rebound and Huerter sunk his next attempt.
As a part of this offense, every man has to shoot the open looks that are generated; Ellis is good enough to make three’s at the NBA-level, he can’t hesitate, especially when he’s being lended a lot of trust late in the game.
Nevertheless, Ellis has been incredibly pleasant to watch, which isn’t surprising considering a lot of the good things have been doing were frequent sights in Summer League and even a little in the preseason.
After his summer performance, it was asked in this space whether or not Ellis would make an NBA impact soon because he looked so well improved. And here he is, 7 games in, doing just that for the Kings.
The rotations seem like they could be very fluid throughout the season, but he looks like he could be a prominent name in the mix.
Ellis, who was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2022, is currently on his second two-way contract. Under a two-way deal, a player can only be active for 50 games in the NBA and they are not eligible for postseason play.
Should his contract be converted to a standard deal?
If Ellis is going to play fairly often—or at least be in the mix as an NBA player—he won’t be missing out much on the chance to sand down the edges of his development with the G League Kings, and it’ll give him the opportunity to learn at the highest level.
More time may need to pass before the organization makes any decision like that though. After all there’s no rush, but Sacramento did send Filip Petrusev to play a game with Stockton the other night. The newcomer’s contract only becomes fully guaranteed in early January, and an impact from him does not appear to be in the foreseeable future; the Kings could waive him and bring him back on the two-way deal vacated from converting Ellis’ deal. However, none of that is clear.
Again, maybe this is not a pressing issue that’s working against the clock. The Kings have time to continue to evaluate Ellis, and it would be prudent to use it.
Even still, Keon Ellis—particularly his defense—has proven to help Sacramento out immensely in their two straight victories.